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Hump Day Hero: Aline Zoldbrod

January 11, 2012

Every other Wednesday The CSPH will highlight a Sexuality Professional you should keep your eye on. Their backgrounds are very diverse in order to bring attention to the wide variety of amazing people working in the field. This week we bring you Dr. Aline Zoldbrod.

1.  What do you do in the field of sexuality? I’m an individual and couples sex therapist, the author of three commercially published and well-regarded books in sexuality, a clinical supervisor for aspiring sex therapists, and I am on the faculty of the University of Michigan Sexual Health Certificate Program, a comprehensive externship program.

2.  Where are you based out of? Boston  (Specifically, Lexington, a convenient suburb). But I have patients who come from as far away as 3 hours, including Northern Maine and New Haven, Connecticut.

3.  What is your focus?  What do you do?  Mostly these days, I do individual and couple therapy and train and lecture locally.  In a couple of years, I will be able to travel again. Long story… (You can check out my resume on my website to see some of the national and international speaking gigs I’ve had in the past.)

4.  What are your particular goals and passions in the field? My greatest passion is to help people (including professionals) to understand that all kinds of childhood non-sexual trauma and neglect are stored in the body, making joyful sex impossible. This is what I wrote about in SexSmart in 1998, and I’m still out beating the drum about it.

I am dismayed about the short shrift given to the sexual sequellae of non-sexual developmental trauma by mental health professionals, including sex therapists.  All of what each of us has learned about whether or not the world is safe, whether relationships are safe, and whether it is O.K. to ask for what we want is stored as implicit memories in the right hemisphere of our brain, most often out of awareness.  Losing oneself in sexuality–transcendent sex and sexual passion– means accessing the forbidden feelings that are stored in the body. This is one huge reason for sexual dysfunction, lack of desire, sexual aversion, etc. — and sexual addiction (which often is dissociated sex).  If attachment needs were not met in childhood, partnered sex with a beloved other will feel very risky and frightening.

The prevalence of childhood neglect, physical, emotional, and non-sexual abuse (along with witnessing family violence), is much higher than is generally acknowledged.  Neglect is especially hard to tease out of people’s histories, since it’s hard to understand what you were missing if you never had it.

Recent research indicates that at least a half of families were abusive in some way!  If you want to check out the research, go here.

Sex therapists beware! There is no point in assigning sexual “homework” to patients if they are unaware of trauma-based blocks to pleasure in their bodies.

One technique I developed to assess whether patients have trauma stored in their bodies is called Body Mapping © (published in 1998 in SexSmart).

Besides addressing trauma, it’s a useful exercise for communicating about pleasure. Body Mapping© helps partners explore detailed information about how each person wants to be touched by his/her intimate partner.  In this technique, each person draws an outline of his/her body, front and back, and colors it in according to how he or she wants to be touched. (It’s a good idea to date the BodyMap©, too.)

The color scheme is similar to a traffic light, which is a good way to remember it:

  • Green = Go for it, touch me here
  • Yellow or blue (as in the diagram below) = Caution, I may or may not like this, depending on factors which I may or may not be able to predict.·
  • Red = No way. Stop!  Stay away.

Then, the partners share the body maps.  Any areas of red, or blue/yellow are discussed and explained to each other.  The couple will have to work together to create safe and pleasurable touch using this map.

Below is an illustration of the body map of “Avery”–Avery is a kind of untraumatized EveryWoman. 

Copyright 1993, Aline P. Zoldbrod Ph. D

I must say, I’m very happy that many of my ideas have become incorporated into the literature on sexuality.  (A partial list of the books that cite me can be found on my website, SexSmart.com)

5.  Why did you choose to work in this field? It was a natural pathway. I was so lucky to have the parents I did. My mom was a medical social worker, and she was appropriately open about sex, plus really warm and loving and smart. My dad, too, was loving and affectionate and smart. They were both committed to justice and equality for all, no matter what religion, race, class, or sexual orientation. They had a great marriage that made it obvious why it would be a good idea to get very close to another person.  So a career as a sex therapist was a good fit.

I’ve always been interested in how people develop emotionally and sexually anyway. My mom went back to social work school when I was eight. I used to read her textbooks, including some about families and sexuality. Some of the books were on child abuse and rape.  A lot were Freudian.  I think she was a little worried that I would be upset by what I was reading, but I was not, so she let me keep reading.

When my mother died, I went through her stuff, and I found that she had saved written interviews that I had done with my friends about their families of origin and their feelings about their upbringing.  This was, way back before Xerox machines, mind you. The teachers were using mimeograph machines.  So I had made up a questionnaire on carbon paper, made multiple copies, and had gone around interviewing all of my friends!   So I did this for fun and fascination when I was probably ten years old, and I’m in my sixties now.  Good fit, huh?

6.  Where did you go for school/training? I have a Ph.D. and am a licensed psychologist, but got my actual sexology training a quarter of a century ago, at the point in time where one had to fly all over the country to AASECT meetings to get it. Now it’s easier, since there are some wonderful and comprehensive externship programs, like the University of Michigan’s Sexual Health Certificate Program.  I attend conferences, both to learn and to teach, at AASECT, SASH, and Society for Sex Therapy and Research.

Because I work a lot with trauma and with couples, I keep my clinical training up to date. I’m trained in EMDR and I’m certified in the Sensorimotor Treatment of Trauma. I belong to the New England Society for Treatment of Trauma and Dissociation (NESTTD) and get educated there. Most recently, I’ve been getting training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.  I’m in several ongoing, local study and training groups, one on sensorimotor therapy and one on sexual compulsion/addiction.

8.  Do you have any literature out (websites, articles)?

I have been publishing about sexuality since 1990.

My first full book, Men, Women and Infertility (1993, MacMillan) had several chapters about sexuality and gender role and infertility treatment and sexual trauma.  It’s a book for professionals, and it got excellent reviews.

I’m proudest of my second book, SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It. It has been translated into Spanish, Turkish and Polish and won ForeWord Magazine‘s award for being one of the top three self-help books published that year (New Harbinger,1998).  SexSmart describes my interpersonal theory of sexual development, The Milestones of Sexual Development. SexSmart’s central message is that healthy sexual development actually is quite varied and complicated. We each come to our adult sexuality having walked down our own special path. And many families in which there was no specific sexual abuse, actually do cause profound damage to childrens’ developing sexuality.

SexSmart explains how the way you were raised in your family– whether you were touched nicely or cruelly or not at all, whether you could depend on your parents to take care of you, whether you got empathy, whether you trusted your parents and your siblings, what the power relationships were, and even whether you were encouraged to have friends–all deeply affect whether you will be able to enjoy sexual pleasure, and also whether you will feel safe being sexual with someone to whom you are emotionally attached.  In SexSmart I describe fourteen  “Milestones of Sexual Development.”  The basics of my thesis are on SexSmart.com under the button “Solving Problems, ” so your patients can go there for free and see if what I am saying fits their experience.  My book SexSmart is now available from iUniverse.

In 2002, I wrote Sex Talk: Uncensored Exercises for Exploring What Really Turns You On with my friend, Lauren Dockett.  It’s a book about how to communicate sexually, and my principles are illustrated by some pretty spicy erotic stories by Lauren.  What’s nice about SexTalk, and what sets it apart, is it features stories about gay and straight men and women, which is relatively unusual.  And my clients find the communication techniques helpful.

Besides the books, I have written a lot on sexuality for hisandherhealth.com, where I have a column, “Life from A to Z”.  I have written several articles in peer-reviewed journals and have chapters published in several medical textbooks.  Much of my writing is available at my website.

9.  What would you recommend to future sexologists attempting to get into the field?  I believe that sex therapists should personally enjoy sex.  So if you’re someone who has an intellectual interest in the field of sexuality, someone who can “take or leave sex” or “doesn’t see what the big deal is about,” I wish you would do some work on your own sexuality before you begin counseling other people about their sexuality.  It’s not that I think you have to be partnered to be a sex therapist.  But I do think you should have experience knowing what it is like to turn your body, your mind, your control over to your sexual impulse.

10.  What is the most challenging aspect for you working in this career? The most positive thing about this career is that it is endlessly fascinating.  I’m warm and funny, so my patients are able to feel safe with me easily.  I am so privileged that my patients take me so deeply into their confidence.  Being able to help them heal old, mysterious wounds and free up their sexuality is an unbelievable pleasure for me.  But the irony is that even though I love my profession, it’s hard to talk about it.

The U.S. is incredibly sex negative and prudish.  I’m sex positive, open to all the variations in sexuality, opinionated, and don’t speak in a quiet voice.  So honestly, one of the challenges of this field is that it’s hard to talk about what one does without dealing with all the negative transference and just plain strange ideas that some lay people have about sex therapists. In one bizarre turn of events, at a social event, one woman called me ahead of time and said, “John (her spouse) has a favor to ask you, ahead of the November 3rd dinner.  There will be people at the table who don’t know us and they don’t know you.  So John asked me, would you PLEASE REFRAIN FROM TALKING ABOUT SEX FOR THE NIGHT.”  This was an alienating and lonely experience.

This is why it’s so critical to join all the professional sexological groups and make friends with your peers.


11.  One must read-what would you recommend?  Why?  This is like asking me to choose between my children.  I have listed a lot of recommended books on my website.


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